It seems as though we are about to enter a carnivore baby boom, and we are waiting with much excitement! Stellar, the alpha female of the Wild Dog pack looks as though she will go to ground and produce her second litter of pups on Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve sometime either over the weekend or at the beginning of next week. The Wild Dogs have had a hard time over the past couple of years and we are hoping that a successful breeding season will see them bounce back to their former strength. Despite the pressure from lions taking their numbers down to only a few individuals, they are wonderfully resilient and look set to make a comeback. We cant wait!
A little later on, we are expecting cubs from Joan, our female cheetah who we reported fitting with a radio-collar by the end of August. We are not sure where she will hide her cubs, but photographic records show that she has been on the reserve since she was a youngster herself, and so we are confident she knows the lay of the land well enough to pick a safe refuge for her babies.
Our final expected arrival is to Pikkanin, one of the Lionesses, who is also due within the next couple of weeks, according to the dates she was seen mating with Blade, the dominant male lion on the reserve.
It is extremely exciting to wait for these new arrivals, and we hope that they will contribute to the continued persistence of these charasmatic species in this area around the Greater-Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area. I will post news as soon as I have it!
With the arrival of a shipment of much needed camera traps, I am finally able to start using Snoopy in another way to help with the carnivore census. Instead of simply collecting the scats for analysis, I have now set up some cameras at places where Cheetahs have been deposiiting scats and are likely to return. Cheetahs make use of so called play trees to mark their territory, so when we have found these, we can set up remote sensing cameras and wait for them to come back. This method of data collection is very non-invasive and leaves the wild animals to their own devices with no outside interference. We try to limit our impact on our study animals as much as possible, and when collecting scats, we only take a sample and leave the rest of the “signpost” in place.
Here is a photo of two beautiful male cheetahs. The one on the right is the one we fitted with a radio-collar recently. They are using the whole reserve and I suspect strongly that they are the dominant coalition in the area.
We are hoping to replace the radio-collar soon with a GPS collar, that automatically downloads the locations of the animal, so we can get a much clearer idea of the areas they are using, and how this is affected by cover, prey and other predators.
Yesterday saw us fitting our second Cheetah with a radio-collar, which represents a huge step forward in learning about the behaviour of these charismatic cats in this part of the world, where much of the range of the species is outside of protected areas.
Dr Gerhard Kloppers carried out the darting for us, and was able to tell that we are expecting cubs, using an ultrasound machine hooked up to his car battery. Her stomach was too full to tell how many cubs will be born, but his estimate is that she is in the early stages of pregnancy, and it may be another two months before they are born. This will be towards the end of the dry season when game starts to become more and more localised around water, so hunting should not pose too much of a problem for our mother-to-be. This is fantastic news and we cannot wait for our new arrivals!
The holding boma is in an area where there are many Hyeanas, both Brown and Spotted, and so we kept her in for one more night, to be sure that the effect of the anaesthetic had fully worn off, before releasing her this morning. We opened the gates first thing and walked slowly to the far end of the enclosure before spreading out to calmly drive her towards the gate. She was very relaxed, and saw the open gate immediately and loped off to freedom.
Cheetahs suffer from extreme persecution from some sectors of the farming community here, and the more firm data we can get about their habits and ultimately their fate in this region, the better equipped we will be so prevent this area from becoming somewhere where Cheetahs used to live.
The story behind our latest capture really is astounding. We have been struggling to catch Cheetahs to fit radio-collars for some time, and my recent post mentions our first success. Following this, we have been able to get our paws on another Cheetah, this time a female, in the most bizarre of circumstances.
Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve has a long running Wild Dog project, and as part of this, male dogs from outside were being bonded in a boma with two resident females. For his own safety, the yearling offspring of one of the females was kept in an adjoining enclosure. The plan was to release him first, and release the adult dogs the following day. The gate was duly opened, and fingers were crossed while we waited for him to head back to freedom. As he was stepping gingerly towards the open gate, a female cheetah rushed out of the bushes and in the ensuing scuffle, the Wild Dog ran into the bushes and the Cheetah ran into the boma. After months of fruitless trapping, all it took in the end was to simply slide the gate shut. What are the chances of simultaneously releasing one of Africa’s most endangered carnivores while catching another?
We have a vet coming in the morning to dart her and fit the collar. I will post photos!
They say you should never say never when it comes to animals, and this could not have been more true recently. We have been trying for some time to fit some radio-collars onto Cheetahs, but have struggled to catch any. Cheetahs are notoriously difficult as they do not come into bait like most of the other carnivores, so opportunities to dart or trap them are greatly reduced. One evening while baiting and playing calls of a buffalo calf to draw in a male lion so that he could be darted and have his collar changed, we all learned an important lesson in keeping an open mind. Expecting the Lion to come out of the bushes at any moment, we were surprised to see a coalition of male Cheetahs instead. These animals that “do not eat carrion” fed happily on the bait and one was easily darted.
Cheetahs in this area are typically quite small, but this one was quite an exception. With a big head, and estimated weight of about 55kgs, he was quite a boy! They have been moving around over large areas since we have had the collar on, but have not yet left the reserve. They are still shy, but are gradually becoming more relaxed to the presence of a vehicle.
This is a very exciting development in the carnivore research in this area, and we hope to have more Cheetahs fitted with collars soon. Watch this space!
I had a phone call from Azwifarwi, my field assistant, early one morning recently to say that there was a Cheetah stuck in his garden. Somehow it had come through the fence and could not get out. We are desperately trying to catch a Cheetah to fit a radio-collar, but this just was not the time. By the time a vet had arrived from town, an hour and a half drive away, we could not be sure the Cheetah would not be long gone, and valuable money would have been wasted. On top of this, the risk of free-darting a moving Cheetah is just too high. The risk of injury is great if the shot is even slightly off target. You have to shoot for the muscle on the rump, which is not a big area on a cat like a Cheetah, and as Cheetahs have very low density bones (to assist with speed), they are very susceptible to breaks. The dart guns that the vets use are powered by gas, which is adjustable in pressure. The problem is that you have to find the perfect trade-off between accuracy and impact. If the pressure is turned down too far, the impact may be less, but you sacrifice accuracy as the shot may arc through the air and be moved off course by the wind. On the other hand, the higher pressure required for an accurate shot means the dart hits the animal hard, and may cause injury if it is off target. It is not a job to be taken lightly, and we only use vets experienced in this work to help us.
It seemed like a perfect opportunity, but the welfare of the animals is paramount, so we are continuing with our trapping efforts.
We had a couple of reports of cheetahs on the roads around Venetia a couple of mornings ago, which always poses some concern as roadkill is a major threat to them. One of them went through the fence onto a carnivore-friendly farm and so was out of immediate danger, but the news in the other location was more grim. The report was of two cheetahs, one of which was dragging its back legs. I headed up to where the report had come from with Snoopy to see if we could find it. The location of the report was quite hazy and we found a spot where they had come through the fence from Mapungubwe National Park, but could not find the cat itself. The people who had seen it were later able to go back to the exact spot where they had seen it earlier and found the cheetah, sadly already dead.
There was some doubt about whether or not it had been ill before it died, so yesterday we performed a necropsy on the carcass to see if we could determine the cause of death and the health of the animal prior to its demise.
The Cheetah was a young female, that I would estimate at being about 18 months old. She was very slim, with no fat reserves on her body anywhere, suggesting she was struggling to find enough food, but this is not unusual. At this age it is highly likely that she was newly independent of her mother, probably travelling with a sibling, and they may still have been fine-tuning their hunting technique. During this stage, it can be expected that they would be burning more energy hunting for the amount that they manage to eat than an experienced adult would. If her sister can hang on for a few more weeks, then the Impalas will be lambing and so meals will become alot easier to find for a young Cheetah.
There were thankfully no signs of disease at all, and there was a ruptured spleen and badly bruised lungs, as well as trauma to the lower spine, so it seems she was clipped by a car on her back end, and died from internal bleeding. It is tragic so see such a beautiful cat killed like this, but from the level of her injuries, it seems unlikely that she would have suffered for long.
The place where she was killed is a particular danger zone as there are high electric fences on both sides of the road between Mapungubwe National Park and De Beers Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve. The good news is that, thanks in large part to the dedication of the manager of Venetia, Warwick Davies-Mostert, those fences should be removed in the next few months to create a more open area. The tar road will still be a public road, but with strictly enforced speed limits and speed bumps will be put it. It is sad that it is coming too late for this little Cheetah, but is a wonderful step in the right direction that will benefit the carnivore populations in the area immensely.
We were very lucky to see a male and a female cheetah spending some quality time together on Venetia recently. Adult Cheetahs of opposite sexes do not spend time together for any reason other than for making baby cheetahs, so we were quite excited by this development. With at least 3 litters having been born this year, the cheetahs in the area seem to be thriving.
We are trying to catch a cheetah to fit a GPS collar in order to track their movements, and thought this might be the perfect opportunity, and moved our trap to close to where the spotty couple were courting. Sadly, they were far more interested in each other and the trap remained empty. We are trying a new method of trapping, whereby we use scent from a female cheetah to bait the trap. Cheetah males are typically very interested in females, and females do not appreciate other females entering their range, so we are hoping this will attract them in and that curiosity may catch the cat. In this instance though, it seems they were far more interested in each other than in the scent of an unknown cheetah, and they moved on. We are keeping going though and will keep you posted.
Here it is! The first photo of this year’s litter of Wild Dog puppies. There are only six in the photo but there are in fact seven puppies. It is extremely exciting as not only are they remarkably cute, but they are the future of the Venetia Pack.
There were other babies seen yesterday as well, this time a group of three cheetah cubs. In a spot very close to where we saw the cheetah and cubs crossing our fenceline a few months ago, we were lucky enough to see another group, also split across the the fence. The mother was calling from the Venetia side to three small cubs on our side of the fence. It is definitely a different group as these cubs were only about three months old at most. This is very encouraging that they are doing so well. It must be another female as even if the first one we saw had lost her cubs, she would not have had time to have cubs of this size, so we are confident that they are two families using the area. This family were happily reunited when we watched the cubs slip through the wire strands of the fence onto Venetia.